Part 1: Mediterranean Cruise 27 28th Nov – 11th Dec 2021
This was a cruise that I booked way back at the beginning of 2020 just after the Costa cruise and before the covid thing really kicked off in the UK. Then everyone thought it would all be over in a few months so I thought it would be safe to book a Mediterranean cruise for January 2021 on the brand new P&O ship Iona. But of course, that was not to be. Not only was that cruise cancelled but also the Iona didn’t even come into service until summer 2021. However I was offered a full future cruise credit (FCC) plus 25% compensation which not only allowed me to rebook the cruise for late November 2021 but gave me extra to add a back-to-back 7-day cruise to Northern Europe with only a little extra to pay.
Embarkation date for the Mediterranean cruise was to have been on Saturday 27th November but late on the 25th, I got an email to say that embarkation would be delayed 24 hours because the ship would be a day late getting into Southampton from the previous cruise owing to Storm Arwen. Well, OK, that can’t be helped and at least the weather on Sunday was better for my 3-hour drive to Southampton (there was snow where I live on the Saturday). Also the 24 hour delay allowed me to complete the PLF (Passenger Location Form) that could not be done more than 21 days before my eventual return home on18th December. This form is a covid requirement for all travellers returning to UK and I was glad to have it sorted instead of having to do it whilst on the cruise when I’d only have limited internet access. But as it turned out, the rules changed the very next day in that I would need a 2-day PCR test rather than a lateral flow test when I returned to UK, so I had to book another test and complete the form all over again whilst I was on the cruise anyway!
I got to Southampton with time to spare for my allotted embarkation time (4pm) and was instructed to go to a drive-through covid test centre that was at a different terminal to the one where the Iona was docked. I joined a queue of cars near the test centre but I was not sure it was for the test so asked the lady in the car in front for reassurance. By strange coincidence, I met this lady on the cruise later and she was one of the group of solo travellers with whom I later became good friends.
Then we waited, and waited, and waited with the queues only very gradually getting a little closer to the actual test centre. At 5pm half the marshalling personal walked out, as it must have been the end of their shift and I was getting increasingly anxious as the ship was due to sail at 6pm and we weren’t even at the right dock! It must have been about 5.30 when I was finally told to go to gate 4 to have a walk-through test done there. I did not know that gate 4 was actually the Ocean Terminal where I knew Iona would be berthed but told to just follow the other cars. But of course, that didn’t work as at the first roundabout and red traffic lights I had lost sight of the other cars, it was dark and I had no idea where gate 4 was. Fortunately, I had already got my satnav set to take me to the Ocean Terminal so I followed that there. Yes, gate 4 was the Ocean Terminal (if only the guy had said that!), Iona was there and I was quickly directed to where I had to unload my baggage and leave my car to be parked (car parking was included in the cruise package I had booked). It was then relatively quick to get on board with only a short wait for the lateral flow test result.
It must have been well after 6pm before I actually got on board. I had to await my baggage to be delivered to my cabin but after a very stressful embarkation, it was just a relief to go to dinner without bothering to change. My cabin was not far from one of the four main dinning rooms and the lovely Pilipino receptionist (whom I got to knew very well over the coming few weeks) asked if I’d like to dine by myself or share a table. Many of the other travellers ask not to share owing to covid concerns but I always asked for a sharing table. That first night, as the ship finally set sail, I enjoyed an excellent meal with the good company of two couples.
Because the 14 day cruise had been curtailed by one day, P&O gave everyone £75 on-board spend credit which was welcome. Also the initial two-day sail to Vigo (North West Spain) was reduced to one and half days (the Iona had the speed to make up the time) with the stay at Vigo reduced to half a day so that thereafter everything would be back on schedule.
The first day after leaving Southampton, being a sea day, there was a solo traveller’s meet listed at 9am in the day’s programme. It was well attended and one person, Martin, who had done the previous cruise, took the lead. He pointed out that on such a large ship with about 3300 passengers on board, the chances are we would never see each other again unless we arranged regular meet ups. It was agreed to have a meet-up every morning (not just the sea days that P&O listed in the daily newsletter), and those who wished to dine with other singles would meet up at 7pm every evening at one of the bars. This worked extremely well despite a split into two main groups (one group wished to dine earlier). There must have been at least 40 of us in all, though not everyone joined in every day.
After that initial meet, it was time to explore the ship. It is huge! It is the biggest ship ever built for the UK market with 16 floors (plus 3 not accessible to passengers), more than 30 places to eat and drink, many entertainment venues, a theatre, casino, gym and spa, 4 pools, many whirlpools; it can take up to 5200 passengers and 1800 crew.
Photos of the ship
It was the size of the ship that caused me to find I had a personal problem. It was when I walked along the full length of a corridor from near the front of the ship to my cabin which was towards the back. According to the pedometer on my mobile, it was about 200 steps or a tenth of a mile, but by the time I got to my cabin, the calf muscles of my right leg really started to ache. Whilst I could walk shorter distance and be totally unaware of any problem, thereafter whenever I walked more than about 200 steps in one go, the ache would start and after about 250 steps I would be limping. I would then have to rest, but after only a few minutes, I would be back to normal. To do a circuit of the promenade deck, I would have to stop and rest three or four times. Most of the time this was not a problem as normally I’d only be walking relatively short distances at a time around the ship (and subsequently back at home), but it seriously impacted on my ability to walk very far on shore excursions. It even caused me to not go ashore at a few of the ports.
In a desperate attempt to find some relief for the problem, I made several visits to the Spa during the cruise to have leg massages by a lovely Pilipino masseuse, purchasing a few expansive products in lieu of payment for the massages. I even tried some very expensive plastic supports for my foot arches after watching a free demonstration, but nothing made any difference.
Selfie photos taken in my cabin each evening
There were always lots happening on board, especially on sea days. The Iona seemed to be aimed at the family market and there were noticeably a lot more younger people, including children, than I had seen on my previous cruises. Even toddlers were well catered for. But this was not a problem as there were plenty for oldies like me too. Typically, during the day, there would be line dancing, fitsteps, archery and other sports in the sports hub, quizzes, bingo, and many talks and demonstrations. The Iona even creates its own gin in one of the many bars.
One of the highlights of the sea days was a series of talks by Terry Brown who was a retired detective chief inspector who was largely responsible for developing the interview techniques used by police forces throughout UK today (not entirely like what you see in TV programmes like Line of Duty). It may sound like a dull subject and not enough to hold your interest for five 45 minute talks, but he was such a good speaker filling the talks with the most amusing anecdotes. His talks were very popular.
The evenings were quite different. I’d get into a routine that began by retiring to my cabin late afternoon and getting dressed for the evening. Most evenings the dress code was ‘evening casual’ but there were two formal ‘Black tie’ evenings when everyone was expected to dress up. However, as is my wont, I would dress up every evening, though extra special for the formal nights. Once made-up, bewigged and dressed, I’d go to the pre-arranged evening meet up for solo travellers at 7pm at the Glass House bar. Each evening there would be a varying number attending as some would go in small sub-groups to some of the speciality restaurants but nearly always, a good core number who would dine in the main dining room as that had larger tables. The first evening we had a table for 8, the second a table for 10 and the third evening we needed 3 large tables! I really enjoyed these evening get-togethers and soon made several good friends.
After an extended dinner, some of us would usually go to the late show at the theatre or some other of the many evening entertainments. There were some amazing shows in the Sky Dome with laser displays and aerial gymnastics and several venues around the ship featuring some really excellent bands and musicians. Sadly, because of covid restrictions, the opportunity to dance was very limited apart from a silent disco (you danced whilst listening to the music via headphones but not everyone would be listening to the same track - amusing to watch!).
Photos of some of the evening shows
Talking of covid, it was necessary to wear a mask whenever walking about the ship but they could be removed when seated except in the theatre. Also the staff were very good at cleaning tables whenever they were vacated. It was probably safer than being at home, as everyone was at least double vaccinated and tested before coming on board. I did hear that a few people did get found to have tested positive for covid whilst on board and they had to be isolated in their cabins. On the last day whilst our group were enjoying our evening meal and obviously having a good time, a lady did come up to our table and said “I am glad you are all having a good time, I’ve had a terrible time stuck in my cabin for the last 10 days.” Yes, it must have been tough for her and the others who were confined, but everyone knew the risk before taking the cruise. With about 3300 passengers, the few that were quarantined was probably a much smaller percentage than amongst the population at large so we did feel we were in a very safe environment.
Photos of my shore excursions
But of course, the main object of a cruise is the places the ship visits. Our first port of call was Vigo, which would have been a pleasant enough place to visit, but with my gammy right leg, I was limited to just the harbour area. After I got some nice photos of the ship, I found a shopping mall were I could get internet access. Wifi on the ship is very expensive which I believe is probably to deter too many people from using the service, as at sea internet access has to be via satellite and with so many passengers; there would not be enough bandwidth for all.
The next port would have been Gibraltar but high winds prevented the ship getting into port. The wind seemed to be an issue with the Iona. Being so big, it can cope with high seas better than most ships, but a wind greater than 40mph will catch the huge area of its sides making it unsafe to go sideways into dock. So we sailed on to the next port, which would have been Alicante, by which time it was hoped the wind would abate. But that was not to be and so we missed Alicante too. However the captain decided to divert to Palma de Mallorca instead, which most people regarded as a more desirable place to visit.
Palma really was a beautiful place. It was a pleasantly warm sunny day and the cruise shuttle buses took us right around the bay to near the cathedral, which was probably the main landmark. I took many photos but I would have loved to explore the very picturesque old town further had it not been for my aching calf muscles.
Barcelona was the next stop and again the weather was most pleasant. This time I was determined to see at least one of the major sights, rather just the immediate area around the shuttle bus drop off. I had done advance research on all the places we were to visit and I new what local bus I would need to get me to the main sight: La Sagrada Familia, the famous unfinished cathedral created by Gaudi. It is an amazing piece of architecture but even in December, the queues to go inside were too long and I wanted to see other sites. I hadn’t intended walking all the way back to the shuttle stop as it was a few miles distance, but I started walking a short way to find a café with wifi and after a rest there, it didn’t seem too far to another place of interest, provided I stopped every now and again for a rest. Then there was another place on the way that I wanted to see and in the end I walked all the way back! My pedometer indicated that I had walked 8 miles that day which with my bad leg was quite an achievement. However, some of that would be the normal walking about the ship, which would usually be about 3 miles in a day.
We were only scheduled to spend one day at Barcelona but the captain said the winds would again be too strong to get into Valencia, the next port, and so we stayed an extra day in Barcelona. That day I only did a short walk to find a café with wifi as it was cloudy and a bitterly cold wind; quite different from the day before.
From Barcelona, it was a day at sea making our way back through the straits of Gibraltar to Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast of the south west corner of Spain. Cadiz is a lovely town and I really enjoyed walking around it in the warm sunshine, though it was a little chilly in the shade. Again, I walked a fair distance by taking frequent stops, though not nearly as far as I did the first day in Barcelona.
The next day was Lisbon in Portugal. It was necessary to have an antigen test going ashore in Portugal but I decided to skip Lisbon, as I wanted to give my poor calf muscles a rest. In retrospect, I wish I had gone ashore as I could have seen a fair bit of Lisbon by taking a ride in one of the old wooden trams that had a stop only a short walk from the dock. However I did enjoy the sail into Lisbon at dawn (and later the sail away that evening) along the Tagus river, which must be one of the most impressive approaches to any sea port in the world. As the ship approached the striking suspension bridge that spanned the river, it did not seem possible that the massive Iona would pass under it, but of course it did, with what looked like only a few feet clearance!
Lisbon was the last port of call before the final 2-day sail back to Southampton. The weather had deteriorated and with about 5 to 6 metre swell, even the Iona did rock about a bit. It was difficult to walk in a straight line sometimes and the water in the Sky Dome pool had to be drained because it sloshed about onto the deck and caused the singer to get wet during her early evening show by the pool!
So ended the Mediterranean cruise, which despite the few problems I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because of the great friendships I made. I had a day in Southampton before the Christmas Markets cruise to follow (see next blog here).